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For the latest Motley Fool Money radio show, I interviewed Dr. Dickson Despommier, a Columbia University professor and author of the new book The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century. The title refers to Despommier's vision to move farming into high-rise city buildings and transform the way we grow fruits and vegetables. What follows is a lightly edited part of our conversation.
Chris Hill: One of the things that you write about is that vertical farms will allow us to eliminate the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides. When I hear something like that, I can't help but think of chemical companies like Monsanto (NYSE: MON ) or fertilizer producers like Potash (NYSE: POT ) , Mosaic (NYSE: MOS ) , Agrium (NYSE: AGU ) . They can't be happy about that.
Dr. Dickson Despommier: (Laughs.) Well, in the outset, I would agree with you because we have thought a lot about this, too. We are not in the business of putting other people out of business, and I don't see this as a disruptive technology in terms of Monsanto or other large corporations like Cargill. They could make other things besides what they are making now and make just as much money. For instance, they could make chemically defined diets for these plants and charge just as much for that as they now have to charge for the production of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer. So a switch on a dime, so to speak, for their product, using their chemical know-how to produce well-defined, toxin-free, heavy-metal-free food, I think they would end up as the winners; they would end up as the heroes rather than the goats that they are right now, unfortunately.
Despommier: Not yet, and in fact, I made these presentations to the United States Department of Agriculture, where I thought I would have to use a bullet-proof vest in order to go in the room, and they not only welcomed me with open arms, but they actually lamented the fact that they hadn't thought of doing something like this sooner.
So the reasons why the United States Department of Agriculture is concerned is that they enable other countries in their own agricultural situations to go forward. There are lots of countries out there that are in great need of agricultural solutions. Just today, for instance, I saw something on Yahoo! News, which is, of course, the ultimate setting for news stories, right? There is an enormous outbreak of locusts right now in Australia, of all places, eating up all these wonderful crops that they finally had a good year for. Now that is not going to happen when you grow your food indoors. You can actually lock out locusts quite nicely.
The other thing you can do with this too is to keep out plant diseases, so there is no need for pesticides or herbicides. If you can make this food supply secure indoors, if we can do it for people isolated in hospitals that have their immune systems compromised or that have an infectious disease that you don't want to catch, if we can do that easily now in health-care settings, we can certainly give some health care to our plants that we eat as well.
Hill: What do you think the timing is looking like and do you have a couple of finalists, for lack of a better word, in terms of a location for this pilot project?
Despommier: We actually do. I was sort of hoping that you would have asked that question, and I am glad you did because we have been in discussions now, and when I say "we," there are some obvious associates of mine as well who have gotten together and said this would make an interesting company if we could parlay this into a consulting firm that would teach people how to proceed in terms of making indoor food production a livelihood for them.
We have been fortunate to be invited to the table in Jordan and Abu Dhabi and Dubai and Khatar. In those situations, where those countries have virtually no soil to speak of to feed their people, and still great need for food security and food safety issues, those would be at the top of my list, for those that are going to start to do this first. But I have also been in touch with the cities of Chicago and Seattle and Portland and San Francisco and New York City, and I haven't received any flak from those people at all. They have all been enthusiastic about the concept. It's just that generating the funding for this would be the biggest difficulty. And Newark, I should have mentioned Newark also. Newark has expressed deep interest in wanting to do this.
Hill: All right, before we let you get away, we have to wrap up with a round of buy, sell, or hold.
Hill: No, this is going to be fun; you'll love this.
Hill: Let's start with the fact that you have been a professor at Columbia for more than 35 years, so buy, sell, or hold pop quizzes.
Despommier: Oh, you mean as a student or as a professor? (Laughs.)
Hill: As a professor.
Despommier: Oh, I'd buy them. I would buy them.
Hill: Is that something that is never going to go away?
Despommier: That is never going to go away. How else do you judge your own success at teaching, and in other words, you get feedback from the students this way? You don't often grade them, but you have to give them.
Hill: All right, this is the biggest scientific challenge confronting New York City today. Buy, sell, or hold bedbugs.
Despommier: Aaah, now you are into a deep area of interest of mine. I am actually a trained parasitologist. I would buy bedbug control. I wouldn't buy the bedbugs themselves, but I would certainly buy controls that actually worked. And we are still looking for those because it is an intractable problem of dense populations.
Hill: You can buy the controls, but from what I have read about the problem, right now I am buying bedbugs, because they look like they are not going anywhere.
Despommier: I see your point, all right. If I am a bedbug, I'd buy into this one, no problem.
Hill: This is really big on Facebook. Buy, sell, or hold Farmville.
Despommier: Oh, I am going to buy that in an instant. I will buy that in a second, and I will incorporate the vertical farm concept into it, and we'll ride off into the sunset on that one. If you throw in Lego, I will do that one, too.
Hill: Perfect. And finally, this is a license plate motto that has a lot of people scratching their heads. Buy, sell, or hold New Jersey as "The Garden State."
Despommier: (Laughing) I happen to live in New Jersey, and when we gave our presentation to Newark, we actually used the motto, "Bring the garden back to the Garden State," but of course we would bring it back in another form. I would leave the Garden State as a natural wonderland and incorporate vertical farming, so I would buy the state, but I would convert it back to what it used to be before we got there.
Hill: Congratulations, Doctor. I think that is the first time anyone has used the words "New Jersey" and "natural wonderland" in the same sentence.
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